Engendering Authority in the Classroom

Since most of us have made our way back into the classroom over the last three days, I thought I would start off a discussion about something that concerns many (most?) instructors, especially those who are new to the classroom (whether in general or to a new one in particular): the issue of authority and, especially, how one establishes it early in the semester with a new set of students.

A large part of the reason that I am considering this issue is because I just used my favorite ice-breaker in all four of my 105 courses, the one that I described in detail in a blog post a year ago: First day of class: Breaking the ice.

For those not interested in wading through it, the quick version is as follows: On the first day of class I show up early and sit among the students, causing them to think I am one too. Then, when it’s time to begin, I stand up and introduce myself, which invariably freaks out and thoroughly amuses the students.

I discussed the activity with a few colleagues during the first day meetings and the response was invariably the same, i.e. some variation of “That is so cool. And I would never do it!” I’ve generally had that response from very different people at two separate institutions and in online discussions with other teachers and I completely get why it exists.

One of the biggest issues with this ice-breaker is that it not just breaks the separation between student and instructor, but it does so right at the beginning of the very first class, when the initial face-to-face interaction occurs. That can, in theory, limit the instructor’s chances of establishing the appropriate tone for and authority in the classroom.

I use the phrase “in theory” because, I’ve personally never found this ice-breaker to undermine or limit my authority. In fact, I’ve had some students tell me subsequently that the fact that I open the semester in that way serves to indicate that I am very comfortable in the classroom and actually provides a greater sense of authority. I’m also of the opinion that the fragility of authority is, at least some of the time, more in the minds of the instructor than the student. Right now, most of our students are in their first semester of college, worried about how the university functions and what they need to do. The instructor is the one with all the answers (or so they think), the one they can always turn to. In their eyes, authority is a given. This is why it takes weeks for me to break them of saying “Professor” and “Mister” or, in some cases, even “Sir.” Even more experienced students, I think, are more acutely aware of the ways in which authority lies in the instructor’s hands than we often are. With apologies to Ash (Army of Darkness), “Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the grades.”

This is, of course, not to indicate that I think seeking to establish authority early on is a bad thing or that challenges to authority from students do not occur early in the semester. Plus I have a substantial privilege that helps me in this area. I may be a little guy (as I’ve joked, if you’re a 5 ft 4 inch Indian guy teaching English to Americans and you’re worried about your authority, you might be in the wrong job!), but I am a guy—and a loud and confident one. Gender has a major role to play in the classroom when it comes to issues of authority (see Tavya Jackson’s Appearance (and Gender) in the Classroom) and I do have an unearned advantage in this regard, which makes it much easier for me to be cavalier about issues of authority.

To make a long story short, I shared my approach and initial thoughts because I am very curious about other people’s thoughts on this subject. How important do you think it is to establish authority early in the semester? What do you do (or avoid) to establish authority? What roles do things like gender, age, etc. play in your authority?


11 thoughts on “Engendering Authority in the Classroom

  1. If you have ever taught in a public school, you are aware that in NJ, each school has two kinds of drills every month: a fire drill and some kind of emergency drill for a school shooting or intruder alert, or gun scare.
    It is during these drills that the authority of the teacher becomes evident, that is, the authority is simply a facade, as is the security theatre that takes place. No one is convinced that the drills will save lives. Certainly, no teacher is convinced that he or she can maintain control, or would even want to, if an actual bomb goes off or weapon is fired.
    Prior to my first class this semester, I found myself uttering a stock answer to a colleague who thought that she had over planned for her first class.
    “Well, you can never plan too much.”
    Great advice, if you want to talk for the whole time, or at least make certain that nothing unexpected happens in your room.
    Actually, we should expect the unexpected and embrace it.
    I began my class with the DC Berry poem, “On Reading Poems to a Senior Class at South High”.
    It is a great poem about a poet who expected to “drown” the students with words, and the unexpected occurred. The “frozen fish” in the room came to life and together, the poet and the students swam around the room, “whacking words”, and at the end of the class, the totally transformed poet returned home where her cat licked her fins until they were hands again.
    Then, I put the desk top dias on the floor, and sat down with my students, and we talked about the poem.
    Right now, we might know more about literature and writing. We should. The goal, however, is to get the students to take charge of their own learning, and we cannot be afraid that the things that they say may surprise us, amaze us, impress us, and teach us. If we are really good, someday they may know more than we do. In some ways, maybe they already do.
    Let’s see. Let’s find out. Let’s make it clear that the class belongs to us, and in truth, the students not only out-number us, they may have the most skin in the game.
    Do away with the facade of authority, and let’s have a cooperative and collaborative learning experience.
    I have always been astonished at what I can learn.

    • Bill, I didn’t see your post before I posted a comment, but I agree completely. The conversation is more about setting a tone than establishing authority.

    • “Prior to my first class this semester, I found myself uttering a stock answer to a colleague who thought that she had over planned for her first class.
      “Well, you can never plan too much.”
      Great advice, if you want to talk for the whole time, or at least make certain that nothing unexpected happens in your room.
      Actually, we should expect the unexpected and embrace it.”

      Yup! Or, to rephrase someone, “No plan survives contact with the students!”

      Personally, experiencing and engaging with the unexpected (and getting my students to be comfortable with doing so too) is one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching for me.

  2. There is nothing like knowing your stuff, listening to your students, and providing interesting work for them to do when it comes to establishing authority. I personally wouldn’t worry about authority on the first day of class. You have it all in your pocket. Perhaps you like to sit among them to gather information yourself, or because you feel comfortable that way, and I can imagine this might cause your students to be more imaginative and confident when providing you with feedback. They might be more frank about their assessments when they see that you are willing to stick your neck out a bit. That might help a lot. But as for authority, you’ve got it all, and it won’t be challenged unless you are disrespectful, lazy, uninformed, or rigid. Or maybe some other adjectives. Students to trust their teachers.

    • Agreed on most counts, though I do think that sometimes people encounter direct student challenges simply because a particular student decides to be obstreperous, and not because there is always a one-to-one correspondence between a challenge and a failure/weakness on the teacher’s part. Students are human and will sometimes respond poorly in the moment to a situation they don’t care for, often regretting it later. I find that responding calmly (and not actually worrying about issues such as authority) when something like that occurs is usually the best way to defuse it.

  3. Truthfully, authority never concerned me, or even occurred to me. I was more focused on establishing rapport and trust. I don’t believe that I need to exert any authority other than in a content-knowledge way, as I believe (and I tell them) that we are colleagues and that we learn together. There is no hashing this out because I assume it, and therefore they assume it. I also tell them they are scholars and adults, and empower them to make choices and to participate fully. So far, this has worked for me, and I guess that’s the crux of my comment here: every instructor has a particular style, personality, and teaching approach that, over time and with experience, works for them. If you are struggling with establishing authority, then you are likely focusing on the wrong elements of what makes a good classroom environment. While I believe I have a great connection with my students, I probably couldn’t pull off the “I’m one of you” ice-breaker, because it doesn’t fit my style. However, I know I do many things that wouldn’t work for other instructors, because the combination of certain individual characteristics and teaching elements, not necessarily a tried-and-true pedagogy, is generally what makes you an effective teacher, or not. This is why training teachers is so hard…how do you explain that who they are is just as important as pedagogical research or processes? So likely your (Shil’s) engaging personality, energy, and willingness to surprise your students is what makes this work for you, and all I can imagine is blank stares and even eye-rolls if I tried.

    • ” I also tell them they are scholars and adults, and empower them to make choices and to participate fully.”

      For me, this is a particularly important element. Today I went over the syllabus in detail, so I covered the expectations and parameters for the course. One of the key elements that I emphasized was that students will always be treated as adults, with the responsibility to avail of the opportunities they will be provided. Students generally appreciate that approach, I find, even if they are not always keen about the standards that it means they will be held to.

      “So far, this has worked for me, and I guess that’s the crux of my comment here: every instructor has a particular style, personality, and teaching approach that, over time and with experience, works for them.”

      Agreed. One of the things that I particularly enjoy about the teaching discussions on this blog and elsewhere is how it underlines how varied our individual experiences and approaches are. I learn a lot from what others have done or are doing, but that always needs to be filtered through my personal madness before it can become a functional element in my classroom.

  4. I have to tell you, Shil, I actually tried using your ice-breaker in my classes once. Towards the end of that semester, one of my students described her first impression of me as “adorably awkward.” Not exactly the tone I was hoping to set, nor is it a comment that hints at an automatic assumption of the instructor’s authority. While there are a number of things I do in classes to try to break down the barrier between professor and students, I do still feel it’s important that students recognize a difference between my role and theirs. In other words, I do not want them to mistake me for a “friend.” This doesn’t mean I can’t be (or don’t want to be) friendly with my students, but it does mean that I want them to recognize that much as I might like them and sympathize with them, I am still responsible for honestly and objectively evaluating their performance in a class I am teaching. As a soft-spoken woman, I don’t have the “unearned advantage[s]” you refer to here, so I feel that I have to adopt a slightly more authoritative manner early in the semester in order to strike the ideal balance between being viewed as approachable and being viewed as a pushover. If I’m “too nice” upfront, I find that students tend to begin to take it for granted that I will let them slide on punctuality, due dates, even the quality of their work, and they may become resentful and sullen when, contrary to their expectations, I hold firm on these issues.

    So, early in the semester, I tend to dress more formally, be more obvious about taking attendance, and be less lenient about accepting late or incomplete assignments. Later in the semester, I can (and will) relax a bit, and encourage students to see me as a “helper” rather than a “grader” when it comes to their discussions and written work. As I get to know my students and they adjust to the requirements and atmosphere of the class, I will move around the classroom more, sitting with students rather than remaining ensconced behind the teacher’s desk, and invite students to talk to me about problems or issues they may be having in my classes, so that we can work together to find solutions. My goal is to have students recognize my authority, not because I have the power of the grades, but because I have the power of knowledge and skills that can help them improve. It takes time, however, for students to see that power, whereas they’re aware of the power of the grade from the very first day of class. This semester, I’m trying my best to capitalize on that inherent power to get students used to adhering to my course and classroom policies before I loosen up a bit and let them see that writing class can be more than just a general education requirement to be ticked off of a list.

    • Ouch–I can see how “adorably awkward” was not the compliment for you that I’m guessing the student intended it to be! I think setting up the boundaries first and then loosening them really can’t backfire, plus it often makes students grateful and appreciative–whereas having loose boundaries (or what they perceive/assume as such) early on raises the chances of students being resentful if/when they discover that is not the case. I like to negate that possibility by explicitly warning students ahead of time that some of them might assume that because I’m always cheerful, never upset, and regularly joking that it means I’m similarly casual about requirements (or quality of work), and tell them that I will “jump on you with both feet if you screw up, but do it cheerfully”. There are, however, sometimes people who don’t buy the warning and are disappointed when they discover I wasn’t kidding. That’s likely not an issue you’d run into.

  5. I fall much into the same category as Tavya on this. I don’t think I’ll ever forget a student saying, on my very first day of teaching college ever, “Are you really the professor?” Many of my female friends/colleagues who also began teaching in their mid-20s have told me similar stories, regardless of how they were dressed or what they said to their students on that first day. Though not something that keeps me up at night, it’s always in the back of my mind when I choose my first day of class outfit and plan the first lesson.

    • That reminds me of the time (a number of years ago) I sat among the students as usual, only to have another (much older) instructor walk in and start teaching the class.

      He was in the wrong classroom, but when I went up and explained that to him, he got really confused and kept saying, “But who’s going to teach this class?” It took me a while to realize that he thought I was just another student (and when I’d said that I was in the English department too, he thought I was an English major). When I explained, the poor guy first didn’t believe me, and then was mortified and apologetic. After he left the students were in splits, with a couple of them asking me, “Are you really the professor?” before they were convinced.

      Then again, I got asked that in a couple of the classes this semester too. It works for me, but I get why a lot of people might not want to experience that moment.

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